How the Iowa Wild helped the Minnesota Wild make the playoffs

Author: Dane Mizutani, St. Paul Pioneer Press
Date: Apr 11, 2018

ST. PAUL — During the drive down I-94 from St. Paul to Chicago, headed to the NHL Draft last June, Bruce Boudreau plopped down next to his good buddy Derek Lalonde on the team bus.

Boudreau, who had just wrapped up his first season as coach of the Minnesota Wild, had some words of wisdom for Lalonde, who was coming off his first season as coach of the Iowa Wild.

 

"He literally sat down next to me and he looked at me and he said, 'You're going to be the worst team in the history of the league,'" Lalonde recalled with a chuckle. "And, of course, he was being a little sarcastic when he was saying it. At the same time he knew that we needed to replenish what we had down there."

Gone was top prospect Alex Tuch, traded to the Vegas Golden Knights during the NHL Expansion Draft.

Gone was minor league journeyman Jordan Schroeder, traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets during the offseason.

And gone was the blue line combo of Mike Reilly and Gustav Olofsson, who signed matching two-year, one-way contracts during the offseason to essentially guarantee themselves an NHL roster spot.

While those departures might seem rather inconsequential on the surface, those types of players were key in helping the Iowa Wild field a competitive roster.

"There were a lot of moving parts and our depth took a major hit," Lalonde said. "Luckily for us, the organization went to work on July 1 and added a lot of guys."

That meant signing lesser-known players like winger Kyle Rau, center Cal O'Reilly, center Landon Ferraro, defensemen Ryan Murphy and Alex Grant, and goaltender Niklas Svedberg on the opening day of free agency.

"It probably didn't look too sexy at the time because I know the typical fan out there is into the high-profile, very-expensive, long-term free agent signing," Lalonde said. "That said, we knew we had to improve our depth, and I think ultimately the big club has been rewarded for it this season."

As injuries ravaged the Minnesota Wild this season, Iowa Wild players have been key in filling those voids.

Just take a look at the blue line Minnesota will take into its first-round playoff series this week against the Winnipeg Jets.

Nick Seeler and Carson Soucy almost certainly will be in the lineup for Game 1 on Wednesday night at Bell MTS Place, and Murphy has a good chance of cracking the lineup at some point.

Those three combined to play 164 games in Iowa this season, and now they are important parts of Minnesota's playoff push.

"We have to elevate our game a little bit on the back end," Seeler said. "We definitely feel that. At the same time it's important to stay simple and stick with what's been working for us. We can't try to do too much."

Such a scenario wasn't even an option for the organization last season.

"We had much more depth this season than last season as far as (the Iowa Wild) goes," Boudreau said. "Now we've robbed them of everyone that they've got, and that's a different story. That said, we could tell that if we were going to get into injuries, these guys were going to be able to come up and play a role."

That has significantly impacted the Iowa Wild as a once promising season has gone by the wayside over the last last month with some of the top players at the next level. The team is limping along this season with a 31-26-10 record, sixth in the seven-team Central division of the American Hockey League.

Not that Lalonde will ever use that as an excuse.

"It'd be easy for the average fan to chalk this situation up to the call-ups and the injuries," Lalonde said. "That isn't the whole story. I don't want that to be an excuse. We fell apart in every category down the stretch, and that's not only because of call-ups and injuries."

"That said, it can still be rewarding when we turn the game on and see Nick Seeler or Carson Soucy or someone else making a play" for the NHL team, Lalonde added. "Like, I mean, right now half of the blue line with the big club was our blue line earlier in the season. And they're performing at a pretty high level."

Frankly, that's the nature of the beast in the minors.

While every team has goals of winning the Calder Cup, the fact of the matter is if someone is performing well in the minor leagues, they're going to get called up to the NHL at some point.

"It kind of stings to see how they've struggled down there as of late," Soucy said of the Iowa Wild. "You look how many guys have gotten called up and it's not easy to win when so many guys move on to the next level. Even though that is what we're all working towards, it's still hard to see them not make the playoffs."

Asked more about that conversation on the team bus 10 months ago, Lalonde joked that despite the collapse down the stretch maybe the team can take some solace in the fact that it wasn't the worst team in the history of the league.

"Maybe this is how it looks in the salary cap era where organizations have to build from within," Lalonde said. "We understand the No. 1 priority is the Minnesota Wild winning. It's designed for us to be a part of it. I'll be watching with a vested interest when the playoffs roll around."

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